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Science and Technology
Cognitive & neurosciences - Brain research, computational neuroscience, functional imaging, fMRI, PET, neuroinformatics, neuromorphic engineering
The next 20 years are likely to witness a revolution in our understanding of the human brain, with implications for virtually every domain of human activity, from mental health to software design and academic performance and real-life decision- making.
Summary Analysis:
It is possible that we are in the very early stages of a revolution in our understanding of the human brain, similar in many ways to the early stages of genomics research. In the span of 50 years, scientists went from discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA to decoding the human genome, creating a blueprint or map of the human organism. In the next 20 years we are likely to map the human brain in much greater detail and develop a much better understanding of how it functions. Developments in several technologies and scientific disciplines have the potential to enable further advances in brain research and bring about closer integration between disciplines:

  • Imaging - Imaging technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and others increasingly enable researchers to visualize ongoing cognitive activity at a resolution of a few hundred thousand cells. Since fMRI is a noninvasive technology, researchers can observe changes in live human subjects as they are questioned about their perceptions or while performing cognitive tasks. Future developments in imaging technology could permit changes in brain structure and function associated with normal and pathological behaviors to be followed at a cellular level. Functional neuroimaging methods could help us identify, with increasing precision, alterations in brain function that take place even in the absence of discernible changes in brain structure. This has the potential to effectively allow the visualisation of thought.
  • Computation - Computational neuroscientists can already correlate studies of the brain with the nature and amount of information necessary to perform cognitive functions such as perception, memory, decision making, motivation, and learning. New computational capabilities will enable scientists to extract far more information from raw biological data than ever before, with increased ability to store and access the data, perform sophisticated analyses and simulations, and create visualizations that reveal underlying patterns of activity. Advances in computational neuroscience are likely to complement and enrich findings from the field of systems neuroscience, developing our understanding of brain function further.
  • Genetics and genomics - The results of the Human Genome Project, combined with great progress in genomics and proteomics over the past decade, will provide a vast amount of information to help researchers identify how the brain works at the genetic and cellular levels. Researchers will be able to study a broad range of fundamental questions about genetic influences on mental processes and disease over the coming years as human genome sequences become available. These sequences could make genetic manipulation of model organisms easier and more precise, in turn potentially enabling detailed mapping of basic activities within and between brain cells.

Advances in brain research are likely to lead to a better understanding of a number of psychiatric illnesses and their treatment. It could also fuel the emergence of ‘neurocognoceuticals’ - lifestyle drugs for enhancing or augmenting cognitive function or creating desirable psychological/emotional states. With better understanding of the processes underlying learning, educational programs tailored to fit different learning patterns could be developed and the new principles of neural computation and behavior are likely to make a major contribution to the development of future software and other intelligent technologies. This increased understanding of brain function could potentially make brain enhancements/prosthetics possibilities, raising important issues about what we consider to be the norm and what is authentic versus artificial.


  • Evolution of neuroinformatics and neuromorphic engineering
  • Creation of new mental health tools
  • Emergence of neurocognoceuticals
  • Move to more personalized education
  • Shift in boundaries of 'normality' and 'authenticity'

Early Indicators:

  • Recent announcement by IBM and EPFL in Switzerland of the Blue Brain Project to create a detailed computer-based model of the entire brain
  • Recent estimate by NeuroInsights, a San Francisco research firm, that 300 companies worldwide are developing brain-related products for everything from sleep and anxiety disorders to multiple sclerosis and stroke, with much of the focus on finding treatments for ailments likely to hit aging Baby Boomers
  • Growth of neuromarketing (the study of brain responses to products and marketing messages), as exemplified by the use of brain imaging by UCLA brain researchers to understand how the brains of Democrats and Republicans differ in their response to campaign ads

What to Watch:

  • Pharmaceuticals and devices for psychiatric and age-related mental disorders enter the market.
  • Various mental/cognitive/emotional enhancements and prosthetics are increasingly accepted.
  • Social debates are waged about what is natural versus artificial.
  • A new generation of neuroimaging devices for lie detection and detection of various types of emotional/cognitive states is developed.
  • Neuromarketing techniques are used by corporations and political parties for consumer targeting.


  • Evolution of genomics research and resulting advances in decoding the human genome


  • New generation of imaging technologies
  • Advances in computation and processing power
  • Aging of the population
  • New PET markers


  • US, Switzerland, UK, Australia, China


  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • King’s College
  • EPFL (Switzerland) [link]
  • Duke University
  • UCLA
  • Centre for the Mind, University of Sydney [link]
  • Cardiff University Brain Repair and Imaging Centre [link]
  • University of Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute [link] and Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit [link]
  • University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience [link]
  • Utrecht University Medical Centre, The Netherlands (including psychosurgery) [link]
  • Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Germany [link]
  • Max Planck Institute, Martinsried, Germany (Tobias Bonhoeffer, imaging of individual neurons in a living brain in action) [link]
  • Institute des Sciences Cognitives, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) [link]
  • European Brain Institute, Italy [link]
  • Chinese Society for Neuroscience [link]


  • "Drugs Futures 2025. Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs." Foresight. 2005, UK [link]
  • "Neuroinsights: The Neurotech Market Authority" Neuroinsights [link]
  • "Connecting Brains and Society. The Present and Future of Brain Science: What is Possible, What is Desirable?" International Workshop. April 2004, Amsterdam. The Netherlands. Proceedings and Synthesis Report. King Baudouin Foundation, Belgium; Rathenau Institute the Netherlands [link]
  • Maguire, E. et al. "Recalling Routes around London: Activation of the Right Hippocampus in Taxi Drivers." September 15, 1997.Vol. 17. No. 18. Journal of Neuroscience [link]
  • Wolpe PR, Foster KR, Langleben DD. Emerging neurotechnologies for lie-detection: promises and perils (PDF file). Am J Bioeth, 2005 Spring;5(2):39-49 [link]
  • Olivier Oullier, Human Neurobiology Laboratory, University of Provence-CNRS in Marseilles. "Neuroscience with a conscience? Thoughts, Lies and Anti-terrorism." Le Monde Diplomatique[link]
  • Farah M. "Emerging ethical issues in neuroscience." 2002. Nature Neuroscience 5: 1123-1129
  • Stanford Neuroethics Newsletter [link]
  • International Brain Research Organisation [link]
  • Federation of European Neurosciences [link]
  • Brain Science and Addiction report on Cognition Enhancers [link]
  • Brain Science & Addiction report on Neuroimaging [link]

At A Glance:
11-20 years
How Fast:

Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.

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